On the other side

By Bruce Humes (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-23 09:21
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On the other side
Fan Wen, whose trilogy is set in the land that is home to Tibetans, Han,
 Naxi, Yi, Lisu and other ethnic groups, finds exploring "the interaction
 and collisions between cultures an engaging affair".
Photos provided to China Daily

On the other side
A Catholic church, with its flying eaves and carvings, on the Yunnan-Tibet border, is an example of the interplay of influences in this region.

One devout Catholic's attempt to understand the lives of missionaries in Buddhist Tibet ends up as a three-volume trilogy about love, faith and fate. Bruce Humes reports

At last author Fan Wen has his reward for a decade of immersion in the multicultural wonderland along the Yunnan-Tibet border: Canticle to the Land (Dadi Yage), the closing novel in his longish trilogy, has just been published in Chinese.

Why locate the tale there? "It's my own 'creative paradise', an inspiration of sorts," explains Fan, a devout Catholic from Sichuan province. "You can interpret this as a summons from God, or as a writer who has been vanquished by a certain spirituality, the cultures and beliefs of the people of this realm."

That day in 1999 when he came across the "lonely" grave of a martyred Swiss missionary in Lancangjiang Canyon, Father Maurice Tornay, he realized he had found his "sacred vocation". Indeed, the area straddling the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and Tibet autonomous region is an anthropologist's dream. One finds Tibetans, Han, Naxi, Yi, Lisu and other ethnic groups living together.

"I find describing the interaction - and collisions - between different cultures a challenging and engaging affair," Fan says. "Conflicts have taken place due to differences in culture and faith, like wars between Naxi and Tibetans, and Tibetans and Han. Irreconcilable contradictions occurred between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism when the latter was introduced."

Local annals chronicle religious disputes, and documents in the hands of missionary societies record tales of evangelists who died proselytizing.

On the other side

"As an author, I see story lines and the fates of characters in all this People of different cultural backgrounds and levels of civilization inevitably come into close proximity, and in the course of this, some pay for it with their lives, while others discover a new shore on the other side. But their sacrifices leave us with a priceless heritage."

The trilogy spans most of the 20th century, hopping back and forth between the decades and capturing the non-linear Tibetan sense of time. Fan's imagination almost seems to get the better of him as Living Buddhas levitate and Shamans summon spirits to do battle, but the stories are firmly rooted in the locale's colorful history. Historical fiction with dabs of highly entertaining "supernatural realism" thrown in, if you like.

The opening novel, Harmonious Land, (Shuiru Dadi, 2004) recounts the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon (gateway to Tibet), beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

Overseas interest in the 48-year-old author's first volume has been strong, and a leading French publisher, Philippe Picquier, bought the French-language rights and commissioned Stephane Leveque to translate it.

Leveque, who teaches Chinese at France's National Center for Distance Learning, has translated or co-translated several authors including Wang Anyi and her The Song of Everlasting Sorrow in French (Le chant des regrets eternals), as well as two of China's most popular children's writers, Yang Hongying and Jimmy. He expects to see Fan's novel in print in French by spring 2012.

Compassionate Land (Beimin Dadi, 2006), the second tome of the saga, is essentially the history of the making of a Living Tibetan Buddha.

The latest volume is set in the 1940s in Kangba, a largely Tibetan region of Yunnan province. Yangjenma, the privileged daughter of a Tibetan tusi or chieftain, is the object of desire of no less than three men: her fianc (also a tusi), to whom she has been promised as his third wife; wandering minstrel Tashi Gyatso with whom she elopes; and the bandit Kelzang Dorje, who is sent to bring her back home but falls for her instead.

Sheltered by two Catholic Fathers, she and her minstrel lover convert, taking the Christian names of Maria and Steven, and marrying as Kelzang Dorje looks on helplessly. Maria and Steven nominally remain husband and wife throughout the tale, but Kelzang Dorje - who undergoes baptism as well - gradually wins Maria's heart, if not her body, over the years. In the meantime, these characters are caught up mercilessly in the vortex of China's tumultuous modern history.

Kelzang Dorje serves with the Kuomintang, defects to the People's Liberation Army, does a stint in an education-through-labor camp for allowing his rival Steven to sneak out of jail, and is then imprisoned as a suspected Taiwan spy during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Meanwhile, Steven escapes to India and Taiwan, and eventually carries out dirty work for the KMT, including cold-blooded murder.

In the mid-1980s, just when the guilt-racked Maria has at long last openly accepted Kelzang Dorje's love, Steven takes advantage of the new policy allowing Taiwan people to visit the mainland and informs Maria that he is coming "home". In a selfless bid to free his beloved Maria to live again with her exiled husband, Kelzang Dorje commits suicide.

Ironically, this is not the story Fan had in mind when he completed the second book in the series. Originally, he intended to write about the fate of foreign missionaries in Tibet.

But when he was in a village of Tibetan Catholics interviewing the woman whose experiences were to serve as the model for "Maria", he learned that an old Taiwan soldier of Tibetan descent, Ruo Hui, was living some 4,000 meters above sea level up in the mountains. As it turned out, this was her husband ("Steven"), still patiently awaiting the day they would be reunited as husband and wife.

Fan called Ruo Hui on the phone to arrange a meeting but the retired soldier turned him down. So Fan went up the mountain and by reminding the reluctant Ruo Hui that he too was Christian, he gained entrance to his dwelling.

"His experience changed my original intention for the novel. Before, I had envisioned simply writing about the lives of a few missionaries, about the dialog and conflicts between religions. But after I listened to his life experiences, it seemed to me that a tale of 'love rescued by faith and fates changed by love' could better express my feelings for this land."

In 2007, Fan won a grant from the Taipei Arts Village that allowed him to visit Yilan and Hualien, both places where Ruo Hui had lived in exile. There, he not only interviewed Catholic Fathers knowledgeable about pre-1949 missionary activities in Yunnan, but he was also given the diary of another soldier who had worked underground with Ruo Hui for the KMT on the Yunnan-Myanmar border.

With his decade-long dream of creating a trilogy that constructs a complete world unto itself - like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County - now realized, what is next on Fan's agenda? A new novel about "cultural collisions", of course.

But this time the main characters will be French nationals working on the 855-kilometer railway built between Yunnan's Kunming and Vietnam's Haiphong during 1904-10 when the European power ruled Indochina.

"I've already read a lot of background material, conducted interviews along the line, and even stayed in the old train stations. I'm conceptualizing the story right now," says Fan.

Bruce Humes is a Chinese-to-English literary translator always on the lookout for Chinese writing of interest to readers in the West.

Read more at www.bruce-humes.com